Note: This column, published in monthly instalments, marks the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. This is the 4th instalment.
In June 1971, my mother Dr Jahan A Rabbee received an invitation to attend a World Health Organization meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. It was an international meeting of experts to review materials for healthcare workers implementing national programs for population planning. My father felt it was interesting that they had invited my mother in the middle of the war. They were both sure that this technical meeting was indeed taking place but wondered if it was a way to give an East Pakistani official an opportunity to voice the realities of the ongoing massacre.
Getting the invitation was indeed a mark of honour for my mother’s career, but there was a very short time to prepare. Surprisingly, Amma was given permission to leave East Pakistan and her passport was stamped with a visa for Switzerland. My father surmised that it made the West Pakistani government look good to allow her to take this business trip overseas at the time. My mother prepared to speak about the war and my father saw her off at the airport. My parents were VIPs and treated as top elites at the Dhaka airport—but still the military guard proved to be a menace. My mother was allowed to pass through security quickly and she boarded the plane. We all said a prayer and were relieved to get news of her safe departure.
When my mother reached London, she met with several Bengali community members and made it clear that we needed help. People crowded around her and assured her they were doing everything they could to mobilise international help and support to end the war. Even to this day, I am proud of my mother for having shown the courage to travel abroad, pass through a convoy of troops at Dhaka airport, and convey sensitive information to help our people.
While my mother was away, the war situation in Dhaka had become more intense. The governor, Abdul Momen Khan, a notable Rajakar traitor and supporter of West Pakistani rule, was shot by freedom fighters, aka Mukti Bahini. He died at the Dhaka Medical College, which put my father at risk as he had been functioning as the medical chief of the main hospital. The Mukti Bahini was increasingly successful in destroying shipment of arms, food and supplies to the Pakistani army. It was clear that the West Pakistani soldiers were having difficulty, both with the propaganda of the war outside the country, as well as the increased resistance from Mukti Bahini within.
There had been an attempted attack on Dhaka airport. In addition, through the months of September and October, we heard that the bold soldiers of the Mukti Bahini were carrying out daring attacks on the prestigious Hotel Intercontinental, the Dhaka radio station, and other key places around town. My mother was unable to reach my father either by phone or by telegram.
After her work was completed, my mother flew back to Dhaka where the streets resembled that of a deserted ghost town, and she kept praying to Allah to make it safely back to us. It was almost dusk when she arrived. We all screamed in delight to see her. She had been shaken from the trip but when she finally settled down, she presented us with many gifts. She brought a very expensive Swiss watch for my father. He rarely took the watch off, which would be with him until the end.
With my brother and mother now both safely back at home, we were all grateful and happy for the first time in a long while. “Will this happiness last?” my mother asked rhetorically on many occasions.
My mother kept feeling a strong urge to move out of Dhaka, so she pleaded with my father for us to leave for Switzerland. One thing that was true of my father and for many of the courageous, principled Bengali intellectuals of that time was that they felt they could not and would not leave. They needed to stay and provide service to the cause of liberation of Bengal. They felt they did not do anything wrong and should not be the ones fleeing their own homes. This was one of the core moral principles forming the ideological foundation of these brave fighters of Bengal, which led us to victory.
Around this time, my father received notification that he had been selected for the Nuffield Medical Fellowship for eminent physicians. I was so proud of my dad; he was a member of the royal college of medicine and cardiology in the UK, and he was in constant communication with his medical peers abroad to further the medical research he had undertaken within his specialities.
My father slept only for a few hours, even though he loved to sleep. He was always reading or writing until the wee hours of the morning about medicine but also literature, economics, history, political science—anything he found interesting. He had a multi-dimensional knowledge base that helped him work through the complex problem-solving that we, as a nation, needed.
Combining the knowledge base of medical excellence with humanity, compassion and courage, my father left an indelible mark of excellence in medicine on our nation. It took me some time to realise that he was not only the most notable physician and an intellectual leader of the Bengali cultural and pro-democracy movement, but also an outstanding freedom fighter throughout the nine-month war of liberation.
There are many wartime heroic tales about my father helping cultural icons, including poet Sufia Kamal, singer Firoza Begum and musician Kamal Das Gupta. Countless Hindu and Muslim freedom fighters, politicians and civilians were treated or protected from danger by my father. Some were admitted under fake Muslim names, or kept under medical treatment longer because releasing them would mean their death. Some he transported directly to unknown locations that he arranged and paid for. Each time, my father risked his life for fighting for his country.
My father had taken an oath silently to himself that he would fight on as long as necessary to support and defend the cause of Bangladesh’s liberation from oppression. I am proud of my father because he is the greatest freedom fighter I have ever known and one of the biggest doctors dedicated to science and medicine this country has ever seen.
Dr Nusrat Rabbee is a biostatistical leader in the pharmaceutical industry. She holds a PhD from Harvard University. She is a writer on the 1971 War History of Bangladesh.